'Everything has changed': Homelessness in the COVID-19 crisis

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch

Wash your hands, maintain a safe distance, stay at home. What has become an inconvenience for some is a struggle for York County's homeless population.

The COVID-19 outbreak has flipped life on its head for the vulnerable population and the shelters taking care of it. But shelters are doing all they can to mitigate the spread of the virus that has upended nearly all aspects of life.

From left, food service manager Carol Sechrist and guest advocate Scott Beattie serve lunch while following new COVID-19 prevention guidelines at LifePath Christian Ministries in York City, Thursday, March 26, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

"I can safely say everything has changed," said Melanie Hady, spokeswoman for LifePath Christian Ministries. "It's a really challenging time for us. We serve a population that is already really vulnerable."

More:Officials eye hospital capacity as COVID-19 cases in Pa. jump more than 500

More:'Humanitarian crisis': ACLU sues, says York County Prison puts ICE detainees at risk from coronavirus

More:Information about the coronavirus and COVID-19 from the CDC

Many seeking aid from shelters such as LifePath, which operates facilities in York City for both women and men, already lack health care and have untreated, underlying health conditions, Hady said.

What makes it "doubly challenging," though, is that they are living within close proximity to each other.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that individuals stay 6 feet apart.

But at LifePath, where both shelters are near capacity and rely on bunk beds, that's nearly impossible.

Shelters are still doing all they can to contain the spread of the virus that had infected more than 4,800 and contributed to the death of 63 people in Pennsylvania as of Tuesday.

One of the shelter's biggest initiatives is transforming an empty building at 363 W. Market St., next to the men's shelter, into a quarantine space for those who have been exposed to the coronavirus.

At the shelters, staff, who are required to wear masks, are also deep-cleaning anything that an individual might come into contact with twice a day.

Those who stay at the shelters also must have their temperature taken daily. If they show symptoms, they have access to testing through a partnership with WellSpan.

These measures, though, require supplies. And donation-driven shelters are in "desperate" need, Hady said.

Those include cleaning supplies, masks, plastic foam clamshell boxes and napkins, according to a list on a page of shelter's website seeking donations.

But implementing changes to adequately care for the homeless population extends far beyond just LifePath's work in York City.

Interim Executive Director Steve Brubaker, of LifePath Christian Ministries in York City, Thursday, March 26, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The York County Coalition on Homelessness, which works with shelters throughout the county, is doing its best to ensure the vulnerable population has as much aid as possible.

Through partnerships with the county government and WellSpan, a shuttle service to testing sites and safe lodging has been established, said Kelly Blechertas, program coordinator for the coalition.

The coalition is also working with York City to provide portable toilet and hand-washing stations at six locations throughout the city for at least the next two weeks.

Shelters have also switched to "grab and go" food services to mitigate close-quarters contact.

The updated procedures and restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus are deemed essential. But they've also taken a toll on the homeless population, Blechertas said.

Individuals no longer can experience the "camaraderie" of sharing meals at a table. And they no longer have the same intimate person-to-person interaction that can forge friendships and keep spirits high, Blechertas said.

"There have been a lot of changes to everyone’s daily routines, and our homeless populations are no different," she said.

Most shelters don't have in-house mental health resources to handle potential issues relating to a sudden disruption in daily life. 

But there are partnerships in place with local organizations to provide those services.

LifePath, for example, has partnered with organizations that include the York/Adams Mental Health program, the WellSpan mental health unit and White Deer Run.

It has also partnered with Family First Health and TW Ponessa & Associates' counseling services.

The efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus among the homeless community come as businesses continue to shutter across the state because of Gov. Tom Wolf's order  to shutter all "non-life-sustaining" businesses.

The measure has prompted a spike in unemployment claims, with the state receiving 840,000 claims since March 15 alone.

Nationwide, there were nearly 3.3 million filed in the first week following the shutdowns driven by the coronavirus outbreak, the most ever in that time period, The New York Times reported.

Shelters, however, aren't seeing sharp increases in demand because of a variety of safeguards created by the government, including the state Supreme Court halting evictions, Hady said.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.